Monday, January 14, 2008

Good article on discussion of veterans claims problems

Veterans discuss claims problems

Veterans discuss pending legislation

CAPTION: Kurt Hauglie/Daily Mining Gazette

State representatives Mike Lahti, D-Hancock, center, and Steven Lindberg, D-Marquette, right, talk to a veteran during a break at a meeting to discuss military veterans issues Saturday.


BARAGA — Military veterans from much of the western Upper Peninsula got together Saturday to listen to what state and federal government officials had to say about issues affecting them and what actions are taking place in Lansing and Washington, D.C. concerning those issues.

In the Big Bucks Bingo Hall at the Ojibwa Casino, state representatives Mike Lahti, D-Hancock, and Steven Lindberg, D-Marquette, Congressman Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, and Kane Beauchamp, staff assistant for Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, spoke about recently enacted or pending legislation affecting veterans’ issues.

Event organizer, Tom Heikkinen of the U.P. Veterans Affairs Group, opened the meeting by saying he appreciated the efforts in Lansing and Washington, D.C. on behalf of veterans.

“Veterans have a lot of concerns,” he said. “It’s the best representation we’ve had in a long time, but we have a long way to go.”

Using a PowerPoint presentation, Heikkinen showed a list of actions taking place, first in Washington, D.C. then in Lansing.

Heikkinen asked Stupak to explain HR 1284, which increases the rates of various compensations for veterans.

“That’s the yearly cost of living increase (2.3 percent),” Stupak said. “It’s been passed.”

Many of the veterans in the audience were concerned about HR 2640, which involves the instant criminal background check for purchasing firearms.

Vic Romback, service representative for Vietnam Veterans and a member of the veterans panel at the meeting, said he knows of veterans who have been declared by the Veterans Administration to have temporary mental problems who weren’t able to buy firearms, but Stupak said that issue is addressed in the proposed legislation.

“Those who are adjudicated as mentally defective or committed to an institution can’t get a firearm,” he said.

However, Stupak said the legislation states that military personnel with post traumatic stress disorder may eventually be allowed to purchase firearms.

A member of the audience said he was concerned that military people with PTSD or other temporary mental problems may have their guns taken away.

“If you have trouble with this, we’ll be glad to fight to get your guns back,” Stupak said.

Many members of the audience voiced concerns that the VA office in Detroit takes a very long time to process paperwork, and Stupak said legislation pending in the Senate addresses that issue by authorizing the hiring of 1,800 more processors, but there is a delay because President Bush has said he won’t sign the Defense Authorization Bill because it has a provision allowing veterans who were tortured by Saddam Hussein’s government to sue the government of Iraq.

“We can’t hire anyone until the president signs the bill,” he said.

Stupak said the reason why it takes so long now for paperwork to be processed is because many of the current VA workers who do the processing are retiring and they’re training their replacements. That lowers the efficiency of both workers.

Heikkinen said he understands why processing paperwork can be tedious, but the waiting period must be reduced.

“There are a lot of false claims,” he said. “(But) we have to cut this from three to five years (to process paperwork).”

On state legislation issues, Heikkinen asked Lahti to explain the status of Senate Resolution 102 which asks Congress to establish a national military cemetery in Michigan.

Lahti said that issue is pending and federal government officials have been contacted about it.

There is also pending legislation which requests the federal government to turn the former Still Waters Community Elders Home in Calumet Township into a veterans care facility.

Lahti said that is being considered, also.

“There has to be a feasibility study first,” Lahti said. “If (the federal government) decides to go ahead, then the state would contribute one third (of the cost).”

An audience member said other veterans care facilities in the state have lost funding, so building a new one might not be possible.

“That’s an issue,” Lahti said.

Paul Lehto, Calumet Township supervisor, said there is still a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan on the building which must be taken care of before anything can happen to it.

Beauchamp said the loan issue is being discussed in Washington, D.C.

“Some of that dialog has taken place with USDA,” he said. “It’s a default loan, and they just want to get their money back.”

After urging from the audience, Lahti said he’d take the initiative to find a solution for the Still Waters building issue.

“I will spearhead it, unless we find somebody else who is going to be responsible,” he said.

Lehto said township officials have been trying since the building closed in 2006 to find a new tenant for it.

“We’ll take any idea and run with it,” he said.

Kurt Hauglie can be reached at

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